Rigid as a plank, beads of sweat dripping from his brow, T.J. Olick can feel the searing pain in his fatiguing muscles, but he doesn't let it stop him from methodically hopping on his knuckles a few yards more.
"Slow and steady," said Olick, a junior at Kenai Central High School. " That's the key to the seal hop.
Olick should know. He won the bronze in the seal hop event at the 2002 Native Youth Olympics finals. He placed third with a distance of 110 feet, but already has surpassed his old record in training sessions this year.
How did he get so good? Lots of practice.
The first Native Youth Olympics were held in 1971, after being conceived and organized by students attending the Boarding Home Program in Anchorage. The original organizers wanted an opportunity to demonstrate their favorite Native games. They believed by sharing these games with others, the traditional contests of their ancestors would not be forgotten.
In the first NYO, 12 Alaska schools participated. Since then, the games have grown in popularity and participants. In 2002, more than 74 teams with 343 athletes participated. The participation in this year's event is expected to be even greater.
Participants in the Kenaitze Indian Tribe's Native Youth Olympics stretch on the floor at Sears Elementary School before a recent practice.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Competition is open to all students, regardless of their ethnic origin, but participants must be in school in order to compete. The games have traditionally been for kids in seventh to 12th grade; however, this year the NYO expanded to incorporate a junior division for kids up to seventh grade. There are male and female divisions for all events.
On the Kenai Peninsula, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe IRA started its NYO team in 1992. There has been a lot of success over the years. The world record in the scissors broad jump is still held by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe NYO team. It was set by Christina Long for her jump of 28 feet, 9 inches.
Funding for the team comes from the CIRI Foundation, an organization that strives to enhance the heritage of Alaska Natives through programs that foster appreciation and understanding of Native cultures.
Funds also come from Running Strong for American Indian Youth, whose spokesperson is Billy Mills. Mills is best known for his history-making run in the 10,000 meter race at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. He took the gold medal with his time of 28 minutes and 24 seconds. Mills is the only American to win the gold in this event.
There are 10 events at the NYO and almost all have a traditional meaning behind them. Most of the events require strength of body and mind, endurance and agility. The 10 events include the one foot high kick, the two foot high kick, Alaskan high kick, one arm reach, scissors broad jump, kneel jump, seal hop, stick pull, wrist carry and the foot pull.
Olick is a member of the Kenaitze NYO team and trains with the team three days a week after school, but he also has a strict personal workout regime he follows at home.
Coach Amber Glenzel yells encouragement as Stephanie Holley seal hops across the gym at Sears Elementary School. "Happy place! Happy place! Happy place you're in! No pain there," Glenzel shouted.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"I do a lot of push-ups and sit-ups," said Olick. "I also have a boxing bag I work out on for cardio."
Olick also had some prior experience with the Alaskan high kick and the kneel jump -- the other two events he competes in. He is Eskimo Alutiiq and grew up in a village on Bristol Bay, not far from Dillingham. It was there as a young boy of 6 or 7, while playing with the other children in the village, that he first learned many of the Native games.
Olick's sister, Lenora John, is also on the NYO team and competes in the one and two foot high kick, scissors broad jump, and the seal hop. She remembers the transition from her village to the peninsula.
"When I moved to Kenai, I didn't see anything from my culture," John said. "But the NYO is part of our culture and it gets us together with other Natives."
John and Olick both said they're proud to be part of something that celebrates their unique culture, but that's not the only reason they choose to participate in the NYO. They both enjoy the competition in trying to excel and succeed beyond the limits and goals they set for themselves.
"Winning's not as important as knowing you're giving it your best," John said.
Olick agreed and added, "Winning is good, but having fun is more important."
Their mother, Emilia Taylor, is a tribal advocate for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and helps coach the NYO team. But she's not just standing on the sidelines, she's right there training with the kids and other coaches.
"Participating with the kids helps motivate them, and it gains their respect more than if I just stood on the side," Taylor said.
Taylor also values the cultural aspects of the NYO and the way in which the games perpetuate their Native heritage.
"Until 1995, when we lived in the village, the kids (T.J. and Laura) played Native games, participated in Eskimo dancing and spoke Yupik fluently, but that's all been lost since we moved," said Taylor. "The NYO teaches them about their culture and inspires them to learn more."
She is looking forward to seeing all the kids give it their best in actual competition after all the hard work and training they've done.
T.J. Olick, lower left corner, and Quanah Brewster, upper right corner, square off at the start of the stick pull. Others use their feet to steady the two competitors.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Steven Holley got involved with NYO through his family, too. He had two older sisters compete in NYO. His sister Stephanie is on the varsity team with him, they have a little sister in junior NYO, and their mother is one of their assistant coaches.
Holley, tongue-in-cheek, said he likes the NYO because, "it holds off homework for awhile and because going to state rocks."
On a more serious note, he said he likes the games because of his Native pride.
"I learn about our history and culture, and how things used to be done," he said. "What I get at home is not enough."
Hearing her son's interest in their heritage is music to his mother's ears. His mother, Laura Kroto, is Dena'ina and, as with Taylor, she remembers how tough the kids' transition to Kenai was from their Tubughna village upbringing.
"Everyone knew everyone in our village and everyone was friendly," Kroto said. "But when we moved here, the kids were made fun of and discriminated against in the junior high because they were Native. NYO was a good place to be around other Natives and it was something they could all have in common."
Quanah Brewster, left, and coach Art Barbaza, right, run as T.J. Olick hangs on while practicing the wrist carry event. The three circled the gym twice at Sears Elementary School before Olick dropped with exhaustion.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
However, times and attitudes have changed for the better. Kroto has witnessed this change firsthand.
"The community has learned a lot from the kids going to the schools. They used to be laughed at, but now they are applauded," she said.
Kroto was referring to not only the dance and cultural performances the kids are involved in, but also the presentation they do after researching the history of the NYO events.
"They learn a lot about the history of the Alaskan Natives throughout the research and a lot about themselves through the games," she said. "They set goals and work toward them."
Heather Roesing, a Soldotna Middle School student, also could be said to have NYO in her blood. Her mother was involved in NYO and was said to quite good at the wrist carry event. The younger Roesing participates in the one foot and Alaskan high kick, the seal hop and the scissors broad jump.
"More people do it in Bethel because it's mostly Native there," said Roesing.
Stephanie Kowchee connects with the bag in the one-foot high kick.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
She is Yupik and participated in the games for four years in Bethel through the Lower Kuskokwim School District.
"I didn't think there would be an NYO team here," she said. "It's smaller than my old team, but I'm glad just to see one at all."
John Douglass, a sophomore from Kenai Central High School, also recently came to the peninsula. Douglass was born in Kotzebue and is Inupiaq. He only has been with the team a few weeks, but enjoys being a part of NYO and giving it his best in the scissors broad jump event.
"It feels good to know you're passing down traditions to future generations," Douglass said. "But it's hard because you're sore and tired the next day after training."
The training regime for the team is tough. The stretching and calisthenics routine is 30-minutes long and is followed by a series of sprint relays, longer endurance runs and other activities to "warm the kids up." Then they begin training in the different events. They also play numerous games to improve agility, endurance, concentration and strength.
"It all culminates into the final three-day competition in Anchorage (in April)," said head coach Amber Glenzel.
Glenzel, like most of the kids, knows it's more about having fun, doing your best and passing on tradition than it is about winning.
"No matter what happens, they're all winners to come out and perform," she said.
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